Imagine Depeche Mode circa 1981, singing its vapid synth-pop hit "Just Can't Get Enough," sporting Flock of Seagulls quiffs, bondage gear and full-on makeup. A robust 30-year career in the music business hardly seemed in the cards. Unbelievably, Depeche Mode has done just that, and with their 12th studio album, Sounds of the Universe, they've made their most sonically inspired and creative effort since 1986's Black Celebration.
Producer Ben Hillier, who helmed the boards for 2005's critically acclaimed Playing the Angel, continues to mine the band's early signature sound on Universe, albeit in a less ham-fisted style than on Angel. Though sounding like a spin-the-knobs-synth, Kraftwerk remix of 1990's Depeche smash Violator, Sounds of the Universe is much denser, as the disc's title would suggest.
Using the adage "everything old is new again," DM found daily in-studio inspiration via vintage analog synthesizers found on eBay. This curiosity spurred the kind of accidental genius that made songs like Celebration's "Fly on the Windscreen" otherworldly classics. Though it'd take three Universe tunes spliced together ("Hole to Feed," "In Sympathy" and "Peace") to match the punch of "Windscreen," the overall effect is still satisfying.
As on Angel, vocalist David Gahan co-writes a few songs, but otherwise channels bandmate Martin Gore's tortured soul and inner gospel-choir persona. In the Church of Gore, however, the confessionals ("Wrong") are more VH1 Behind the Music braggadocio than Sunday penance, and spirituals about shackles and chains ("In Chains") involve servants willingly bound to their masters. Still chained, after all these years.